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WAR WITH IRAQ

Mobilization of Iraqi Exiles Falls Short

The $90-million effort to equip up to 3,000 has trained only 74. Officials doubt the group will have much of a role in a post-Hussein nation.

March 29, 2003|Sonya Yee and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

TASZAR AIR BASE, Hungary — They're called the Free Iraqi Forces, and many of them sport paunches and gray-tinged mustaches. Their average age is 42.

The Iraqi exiles, trained by U.S. forces at this remote air base in southwestern Hungary, graduated Friday and will soon take up positions in Iraq as liaisons between the American military and the Iraqi population.

The trouble is, only 21 men were in Friday's graduating class. A meager total of 74 have been trained so far in the program, which U.S. officials say may be doomed to insignificance because Iraqi dissident groups have failed to provide enough candidates to undergo training.

The program was approved last year and launched in January with much fanfare, a congressional mandate and more than $90 million to train and equip as many as 3,000 Iraqis. So few have been trained that some U.S. officials have taken to calling it the "million-dollar-a-man army."

But that criticism seemed to have little effect on the graduates of Camp Freedom, who will be flown to an undisclosed location in the Middle East to begin their work.

"Once the people of Iraq see how we can work together side by side, us with the Americans, they will realize and understand that America's intention is to free Iraq and make sure everyone is safe," said Ahmed, a 27-year-old graduate who, like the others, would give only his first name.

That may be true, but the number of Free Iraqi troops is so low and the force so late in forming that well-placed U.S. officials doubt it will play much of a role in a post-Saddam Hussein period.

Officials specifically express disappointment in the Iraqi opposition, which had promised to recruit thousands of exiles abroad, as well as Iraqis from autonomous northern Iraq.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim force based in Iran, refused to provide recruits. The two Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, which have their own peshmerga militia operating in Iraq, also balked at contributing troops for what was seen as a rival force.

Most of the recruits were organized by the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi.

In Washington, U.S. officials say the training of Iraqi exiles has been riddled with problems from the beginning, including arguments among rival religious and ethnic groups and difficulty enforcing military discipline.

For the Free Iraqi Forces program, the Army deployed drill sergeants to train civilians. Base personnel come from 31 Army units, including California National Guard reservists.

The war in Iraq seems far away from Camp Freedom, a group of spartan prefab buildings in the middle of Taszar, a vast Communist-era air base surrounded by razor wire and forest. Trainees are forbidden to leave the grounds -- a stipulation imposed by the Hungarian government, which is leasing the base to the U.S. and gave the Army permission to train the Iraqis here.

The classroom where the monthlong training sessions take place is a cavernous tent-like structure of metal siding and wood, with maps of Iraq tacked to the walls. The trainees, all of whom live in Europe and the United States, were issued camouflage uniforms and military boots, but few resembled top-flight recruits.

"They're a little bit older, a little bit more out of shape than the soldiers we're used to dealing with," said Sgt. John Philibert, an instructor. "It's just basic survival skills we're teaching them, so it isn't too strenuous, but it is a lot harder for them."

The war began in the midst of their training, but Philibert said that has only increased the volunteers' resolve.

"If anything, it made them more determined to get on with the training and get things done," he said. "They're not for the war per se, but they're behind what we're there for."

Having a common goal has helped foster relations among the different religious groups training at the base, said Sgt. 1st Class Clarence Kugler, an instructor. "To a man," he said, "they hate Saddam Hussein, and that's a unifying element for all of them."

Kugler, a Vietnam veteran, said the trainees offer the military a unique means for fostering relations with the Iraqi population. "We had some disastrous relationships with civilians [in Vietnam], and this is a wonderful opportunity," he said. "I think the Army recognizes that we really need to embrace the civilian community."

Another Free Iraqi Forces trainee named Dilshad dismissed the notion that other Iraqis might not welcome the idea of a U.S. presence in Iraq as much as the volunteers do. "If we do a good job to help Iraq," he said, "they will change their opinion."

*

Yee reported from Taszar and Wright from Washington.

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